HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 51:1-12
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 6:37, Luke 17:3-4
Guest speaker - Art Spalding, NKPC Elder
When I was 20 years old, I interviewed for my first full time job. They gave me several tests before I was offered a position. On a personality/psychological test, they asked me whether preferred raw carrots or cooked carrots. At that time, I really didn’t care for either one, but I was perplexed by the question and what the answer said about me. I remain perplexed by the question and hope before I die that someone can explain what that employer found out about me.
There were also word association tests that were administered to me when I was young. Eventually, we even had a television show that used the same format. So I will try it out on you. Close your eyes. Please don’t go to sleep, however. I will say a word and I want you to contemplate what first comes to your mind. Everyone ready? Grace. You may open your eyes. Because I am the speaker today, I have the flexibility to expand the rules. I have four thoughts that immediately come to my mind when I hear the word Grace. First, is my mother’s Aunt Grace. I only saw her once when I was about 11 years old. Aunt Grace had suffered a major stroke and I remember her lying in a bed in the living room. She had snow white hair and light blue eyes that were wide open. But she didn’t move or speak. I don’t know if she understood anything that was happening about her but she seemed perfectly peaceful, even if she could not communicate. In my late teens, I dated a young lady named Grace. She is the only date that I remember having asked permission to kiss.
As an aside, it was only a short time into my first date with Jo-Ann that I realized that permission would not be required. After Jo and I arrived in Grand Rapids I learned of an organization that used the acronym G.R.A.C.E., or the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism. I have always thought it refreshing that an organization would be based on the idea that it should be composed of Methodists, Episcopalians, Christian Reformeds, Catholics and even Presbyterians and others. But shouldn’t that be the foundation of Christianity? The last words that come to my mind are John Newton. Many of you probably know that John Newton wrote Amazing Grace. Who can ever forget the words: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” If you don’t know the story of John Newton, do yourself a favor and go the library and get his biography.
We understand God’s grace to be the forgiveness of our sins, both those we commit and also our many failures to act. Yet, we understand that we are human and no matter how well we know our obligation in exchange for God’s grace, many times we forget. How then does God repeatedly confront our personal failures and still extend his Grace? How come he doesn’t just blow his top and wipe us off the face of the earth? Grace is freely given by God without any expectation of anything in return but with the hope for penitence and redemption for the forgiven.
In Psalm 51, David expresses himself to God after his relationship with Bathsheba. David is asking for God’s grace when he begs God to “blot out my transgressions”. He longs for the peace that will come from penitence and redemption. David says: create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me”. This is the essence of the response we each hope to achieve from God’s grace.
Even if we begin to understand the concept of grace, what do we do with the concept of personal forgiveness? How do we forgive others for what we perceive as unforgiveable acts against us? How do I forgive someone who lied about me to my boss? How do I forgive someone who broke into my home and stole precious memories from my childhood? How does a man forgive a spouse who left him with 4 hungry children and a crop in the field? How do we forgive someone who took the life of a family member? These and many other traumatic events leave us in a state of rage which sometimes never goes away.
The New Testament lesson from Luke 6, verse 37 tells us not to condemn, lest we be condemned and to forgive so that we may be forgiven. I found this text perplexing, in a way. Even though we understand God’s grace is freely given with no strings attached, this verse seems to suggest that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. Even more troubling is Luke 17, verses 3 and 4. There, we seem to be obligated to forgive if the offender repents. Or, does it suggest that the offender need to be forgiven only if the offender repents? Of course, we each seem to define forgiveness by what we perceive to be our own sense of right and wrong. Clearly, God does not intend our understanding of Grace to be twisted into different shapes when we are confronted with the need to forgive. But are we always expected to consider forgiveness, even if there is no repentance?
The test for me always seems to come back to the question asked of Jesus: what is the most important commandment? And he answered: first, love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and, second, love your neighbor as yourself. If we study these words and understand their full impact on our lives, then we know that we must forgive when a sinner repents. With more difficulty, we also know that forgiveness is more like God’s grace even if there has been no repentance.
How do we truly forgive? Sometimes there is a repeated reminder that we have been offended. Are we to do as Luke suggests and forgive 7 times in a day? And if we say that we have forgiven, does that mean we have forgotten? It is perfectly clear to me that “forgotten” is a word that is in very few vocabularies, at least until dementia takes hold. Have the Protestant Irish forgotten the conflict with the Catholic Irish that occurred more than 400 hundred years ago? Have the Muslims forgotten the conflict over the succession to Mohammad that occurred almost 1400 years ago? Have Christians forgotten the crucifixion that occurred 2000 years ago? No, forgetting is not something that happens easily.
What we must take from Luke, however, is that forgiveness is the only remedy for our personal and collective inability to forget. So, how do we know that we have truly forgiven someone? Is forgiveness an emotion like love and hate that we can recognize almost immediately when it occurs? I have often wondered, even though I can’t forget: have I really forgiven the person who offended me?
I think forgiveness is something like a negative emotion. It is the absence of hate. It is the absence of rage. It is the absence of feeling abused. It is the absence of a sense of needing retribution. What do all those absences add up to? Well, I think they signify “peace”. Peace is what describes the actuality of forgiveness. Several months ago a woman described her thoughts after an adult friend negligently killed her son. She observed: “when you can’t change things, you have two choices. You can hate or you can love. I choose love.”
Several years ago, I wrote down the words of our resident philosopher, Jess Knipp. Jess said: “forgiveness is a small price to pay for peace.” We are all confronted in our lives, in our homes and in our church with people have done something which is wrong and which is offensive to us, people who have angered us, and people who have sinned against us. What are we to do? Remember that we are to love our neighbor as ourself, that we are to forgive when the offender repents and that we are to forgive if we want to find our own inner peace that defines God’s grace. Amen
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Isaiah 35:1-10
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 1:39-56
SERMON: “Countdown to Christmas: Looking for Joy”
“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot . . .
But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not.
The Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season.
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”1
He hated Christmas! Why? Because when he was little he brought a Christmas gift for this girl. It was homemade and from the heart but all the other kids ridiculed him and made fun of him and belittled his gift. He became so angry and hurt that he began to despise the gift of giving. He chose to hate, and bitterness robbed him of his joy.
He takes away all the Christmas gifts from the Who’s. But he observes that instead of crying and being bitter they still gather outside to sing because they are very joy filled Who’s.
For some people Christmas joy is dependent on what gifts are under the tree. For others it’s the holiday feasts and parties. For some it is about gathering with family, especially when we have family who live great distances. For Christians that joy is rooted and found in the message of Jesus’ birth. His birth tells us that God is with us personally. This reality – this message when embraced brings with it joy!
We have taken a close look at ourselves over the past couple of years, and no comment about NKPC went straight to my heart more than whoever said that there wasn’t joy in worship. I have thought and thought and thought about that. And here’s what I’ve learned: We can sing the most up-beat of hymns, Micki can play the most exciting music at the piano, the choir can give us anthems that are meaningful and well performed, the sermon can be short enough to please those who want it so, and still joy can be missing for some. All of those elements are like the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. None of them are what worship is about or what makes worship joy-filled. For Christians joy is rooted in the message of Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, sacrificial death and vindicating resurrection. The Grinch’s heart is changed when he hears the Who’s sing songs of joy after waking up to no presents. No one can take away the joy we have found in the gospel.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary declares that she is bursting with God-news and is dancing the song of Her Savior. Mary understands God is Almighty. God is merciful. Holy is His name.
These are the days of two incomes, but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes.
These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill.
Imagine, if you will, that you’ve been convicted of a serious crime. The police have caught you and prosecuted you. The judge hears your case, finds you guilty and applies the law. You have two choices, pay a $5 billion debt, or go to jail for life. Many of us would be hard pressed to pay a $5,000 fine, or even a $500 fine, let alone a $5 billion fine. We would have no choice but to accept the sentence of a life-long prison sentence.
Imagine now, if you will, that on the way to the prison, a stranger appears, someone that you’ve never met, and that he pays the $5 million fine, no questions asked. You are now free to go about your business and enjoy life. What type of joy would you experience if something like this were to happen to you? If all of your life-long debt were paid off in one big sweeping motion, how would you feel? Relieved? Grateful? Happy?
Jesus’ entry into this world is much like that scenario. As sinners, we are all condemned to pay for our sins. The problem is, the sentence is always the same. The crime may vary from person to person, but sin is sin. God does not differentiate between sins. Sin separates us from God and separated is separated. All sinners are condemned to eternal separation from God because human beings are all at some point, or many points in time, disobedient to God’s Word.
But, the debt has been paid. Jesus came into this world and paid the fine with no questions asked. God sent Him into the world to suffer on our behalf. He suffered for many who will never recognize that he’s even there. It is not our own actions that have blessed us with a forgiving savior, it is the grace of God and by that grace alone that we are able to share in this blessing. Ain’t Grace amazing?
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Isaiah 11:1-10
EPISTLE LESSON Romans 15:4-13
SERMON: “Countdown to Christmas: Hope for Peace”
It’s fun thinking about some of the misunderstandings of the children. For instance, three small boys were in a Christmas play at school, representing the three wise men and they were to present their gifts to baby Jesus. The first boy stepped forward, held out the gift in his hands and said, “Gold.”
The second boy stepped forward, held out his gift and said, “Myrrh.”
The third boy stepped forward, held out his gift and said, “Frank sent this.”
How are you doing in your preparations? In that Countdown to Christmas we have just 17 more shopping days. I like gift-giving. I just don’t like shopping, and I always want the gifts I give to be something the person wants or needs, or at least can use . . . so I encourage my family to have wish lists on amazon. I’ve got them all bookmarked. It’s a little frustrating that some of my people haven’t updated their wish list since 2011, but we do the best we can.
One thing I imagine every one of us would like for Christmas, if it were possible: I would give up everything else on my wish list if we could receive the gift of Peace.
For centuries, bells were one of the ways churches “spoke” to the communities in which they were situated. Bells would be rung to call the people to worship, to announce a wedding, to toll when someone died. It still makes me smile when I think of the bell in the church I served in southeastern Illinois. There was a small entry way between the main church door and the narthex leading to the sanctuary. In one corner of that entry way was a long, heavy rope with a huge knot at the bottom. The children would take turns each Sunday ringing the bell before worship started. Of course what makes me chuckle is that some of the smaller children would pull hard on that rope, some would even jump up to get a grip up higher. When they came down the bell would ring, and the rope would then go up, and down, up and down, with a small child riding on the bottom of it.
Bells and Christmas just seem to go together. Probably no one expressed that better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
In the poem, he said that the sound of church bells tolling out Christmas carols caused him to think of their words about peace on Earth and good will. In fact, he recalled how that theme had long been the “unbroken” song from the “belfries of all Christendom.”
Then, looking at life around him, where there was no peace, he had a moment of despair, saying “hate is strong and mocks the song / of peace on earth, good will to men.” But the bells kept ringing, and the poet took fresh heart. And so his final stanza says:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Peace with God
In his letter to the Christians at Roman (15:8-9) Paul declares the purpose of Christ’s coming is to confirm the promises given long ago to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles may give glory to God for his mercy.
What are these ancient promises that Paul says have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ? Primary among them according to Paul is the promise announced by the prophet Isaiah that “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” This is the great messianic promise for all people; the promise that Jesus is the one who will bring hope to the Gentiles, which means, in the world of the New Testament, the whole human race.
Part of the promised hope is hope for peace. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace.
He taught “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”
Before he went to his execution he told his disciples “Peace I leave
with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
When he appeared to some of his disciples after the resurrection “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36)
From Genesis to Revelation, “peace” appears 249 times.
We long for peace – peace with God, peace between nations, peace with one another and peace within ourselves.
This week one of God’s great servants for peace graduated from this life to eternal life. My friend and colleague the Rev. Dan Anderson posted this about Mandela:
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Mandela. His was a life filled with purpose and hope; hope for himself, his country and the world. He inspired others to reach for what appeared to be impossible and moved them to break through the barriers that held them hostage mentally, physically, socially and economically. He made us realize, we are our brothers’ keeper and that our brothers come in all colors. What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge. He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale. His was a spirit born free, destined to soar above the rainbows. Today his spirit is soaring through the heavens. He is now forever.”
I remember growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Chicago and being required to read Cry, the Beloved Country, a novel by Alan Paton about South Africa, first published in 1948 telling the story of racial injustice. Some of you will remember the movie Invictus we watched as part of the Saturday night at the movies series, highlighting Mandela’s gift for bringing the people together. If only more of us had his hope, commitment, courage and endurance.
We hope for peace within and between nations.
We long for peace with one another.
In my search for commentary on this longing we have for peace I came across something written by a pastor from Oklahoma:
A couple of years ago a rapidly growing congregation I know very well sent out a questionnaire and asked its members to fill it out and send it back because they were trying to find out what the people felt about certain things. More than 200 members did so, and they compiled the results.
The one thing that the survey revealed most dramatically was that they were a very diverse congregation. (sound familiar?)
For instance, some thought they ought to go to the bank and borrow all the money they could borrow, buy more land and build all the buildings they needed immediately. But others felt that they shouldn’t borrow at all. Instead, they ought to wait and not build anything until they could pay cash for it.
Some felt they were giving way too much to missions. They wanted to keep the money for themselves, and use it to help pay for their new buildings. But others said, “We’re not giving enough to missions. We need to give more!”
One person responded that the preacher didn’t preach enough on stewardship, and he ought to be encouraging the people to give more. But someone else wrote, “It doesn’t make any difference what the subject is, the preacher always talks about money.”
Bonnie and I attended the presbytery meeting at Marshall last month. Mike Wicks, pastor at Sturgis preached for the worship service. The main point both Bonnie and I remember from his message was: we fight. We Presbyterians have opinions about all kinds of things and we fight – from doctrine to donuts – as in “Do not take the donuts away from coffee hour!”
Now a wide diversity should not surprise us because almost everybody has opinions on almost everything - even in the church. But the question is, what do we do with the diversity? Do we allow it to cripple us? Do we say, “We’re so diverse we’ll never agree, so therefore we won’t do anything?” Or do we move forward prayerfully, realizing that some will disagree with whatever course you take?
-Frederick Buechner wrote, “Peace has come to mean the time when there aren’t any wars or even when there aren’t any major wars. Beggars can’t be choosers; we’d most of us settle for that. But in Hebrew peace, shalom, means fullness, means having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.
One of the titles by which Jesus is known is Prince of Peace, and he used the word himself in what seem at first glance to be two radically contradictory utterances. On one occasion he said to the disciples, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34). And later on, the last time they ate together, he said to them, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you (John 14:27).
The contradiction is resolved when you realize that for Jesus peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.1
Mandela struggled for peace.
Jesus struggled for peace.
Are we willing to struggle for peace?
“Peace often must begin with ourselves,” wrote Billy Graham in Peace Prayers. Love is not a vague feeling or an abstract idea. When I love someone, I seek what is best for them. If I begin to take the love of Christ seriously, then I will work toward what is best for my neighbor. I will seek to bind up the wounds and bring about healing, no matter what the cost may be.”2
Alan Paton ends each chapter of his book Instrument of Thy Peace, meditations on the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, with a prayer that includes these words: ... and every day let me perform an act of peace for thee. (New York: Seabury Press, 1982)
Can we do more than hope for peace? Can we be inspired by the determination of a Nelson Mandela? Can we be true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ? Will we join in the struggle for peace … with God, within and between nations, with our families and neighbors?
1Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC (New York: HarperCollins Publishers,  1993), 83.
2-Billy Graham, cited in Peace Prayers (Harper San Francisco, 1992), 97.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 122
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 24:37-44
SERMON: “Countdown to Christmas: Anticipation”
Some of you may have participated in the day after Thanksgiving Christmas shopping tradition this weekend. I don’t like to shop on regular days; there’s no way I’m getting into the Black Friday frenzy. I know a few people who want to get those bargain prices and beat out the competition. They look forward to Black Friday, plan their strategy, make their list and carry out the plan with precision. No way will they drop a hint about the best bargains in case someone should beat them to the last one of something they are determined to get at the fantastic savings. When these bargain-hunters walk in the door at the end of their shopping spree, you can tell just by looking at their faces if they have completed their plan.
They remind me of the story about three prospectors who found a rich vein of gold in California during the gold rush days. They realized what a great discovery they had, and decided, "We’ve got a really good thing going here as long as no one else finds out about it." So they each took a vow to keep it secret.
Then they headed for town to file their claims and get the equipment necessary to mine the gold. True to their vows, they didn’t say a word to anybody. They filed their claim, bought the equipment, and headed back to their mine. But when they did, a crowd of people followed them. Why? Because the expression on their faces gave them away. Their faces were aglow in anticipation of the wealth that soon would be theirs. People knew that they must have found something very special. So a crowd followed them out of town to the mine. Anticipation shines through.
It’s the first of December, the first Sunday of Advent. Once again, it’s time to start the countdown towards Christmas and we are already filled with anticipation.
In Winnie the Pooh, Pooh and Piglet take an evening walk. For a long time they walk in silence. Silence like only best friends can share. Finally Piglet breaks the silence and asks, "When you wake up in the morning, Pooh, what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
Pooh answers, "What's for breakfast?" and then asks. "And what do you say, Piglet?"
Piglet says, "I say, I wonder what exciting thing is going to happen today?"
You and I can't really make plans to meet the Returning Risen Christ
because we never really know when or where He's going to show up. But you can be sure of this, He will show up. And the Advent attitude we need to meet him is the attitude of Piglet, "I wonder what exciting thing is going to happen today?"
As excited children listen for hints about what they will get for Christmas and look forward to opening their gifts on Christmas morning, the crowd around Jesus has been listening to what he has taught about the destruction coming to Jerusalem and to the Temple. They want to know what is going to happen, and when, and what the signs will be. Jesus tells them clearly, “No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.” I imagine it did not especially comfort the listening crowd when Jesus not only said he couldn’t tell them when events would happen, he also said, “You will have no idea what day your Master will show up. . . The Son of Man’s Arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field—one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill—one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. –– Be prepared all the time.
It's been over 2,000 years since Christ promised to return with power and glory. "Let ev'ry heart prepare him room" we sing in our Christmas carol. “We are waiting. Will we know Him?” the choir sang. Are we prepared? Our sanctuary is decorated, our tree is up and lit. Will he show up here on a Sunday morning? When you leave this place, when you are at work or in the stores tomorrow, when you go out to eat or back to the classroom, look around. You'll find complacent hearts, worldly hearts, hearts striving for popularity and success. You’ll see hearts that are anticipating a return on their investment of time and money, but not really anticipating the return of the CEO of the universe.
Christian believers anticipate. They anticipate the return of Christ.
We may not like it, but we accept that we don’t know the date. It could be tonight, or it might not be for a few thousand more years. We don't despair, but rejoice. That's what Advent is all about — looking forward to Christ's second coming when he will establish a reign of justice and peace. It’s not about the arrival; it’s about the journey. It’s about practicing being ready.
During Advent, anticipation of many things can remind us of our anticipation of Christ’s return.
* Anticipation — seeing a heavy snow fall and hoping school is closed tomorrow. Some of us don’t feel like Christmas is coming until we get that first snowfall.
* Anticipation — seeing beautifully wrapped gifts under a tree and hoping they are for you. Some of us don’t feel like Christmas is really on its way until gifts are purchased and wrapped.
* Anticipation — hoping that someone will bring pecan pie for dessert.
* Anticipation — smelling Christmas goodies and hoping to get the first cookie out of the batch. We know Christmas really is coming when we have done the “Cookie Walk.”
In the weeks ahead we will be treated to goodies we wouldn't normally eat at other times of the year: Great-grandma's sugar cookies, iced and sprinkled; special cakes and pies. My mother-in-law used to make something she called “Warner’s pudding.” – oh my! “rich” doesn’t’ begin to describe it – but only at Christmas. My friend Carmen who married into a family who originated in Slovenia makes Patitsa bread every Christmas – cinnamon, nuts, sugar. . . Christmas stollen from German. The list of the various ethnic delicacies goes on and on. Sweets prepared for us to feast on. And so it is with Advent as we anticipate a "foretaste of the feast" to come.
Preparing and baking Christmas goodies might be a part of our Advent preparation as we anticipate Jesus' arrival. We take stock of our pantry. But not just what’s in our kitchen cupboards. Do we have all the necessary ingredients to enable us, as followers of Christ, to make a difference in our family, our community, and our world this season? Is our focus centered on a spiritual walk? or on the hustle and bustle of the commercial world? Are we praying for a parking spot or praying for a tired check-out clerk? Do we pick up the Bible with as much anticipation as we do the sales flyers, hunting for "bargains"? Are we in worship as much as we are in retail stores?
It’s not just these four weeks. The good news is that attention to our spiritual walk throughout the year will enable us to reap extra blessings during Advent.
For instance, giving an understanding look and a smile to a frazzled mom with a very tired child in a shopping cart, instead of flashing a disapproving scowl. "Been there; done that." You remember having raised your own children.
Letting go of an old animosity. Remembering Jesus’ advice that if our brother or sister has anything against us that we should make peace with them.
Keeping a promise made, loving our enemies, telling the truth even when it can cause us some difficulty, loving our neighbors as ourselves and above all loving the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul.
As we move forward through Advent we are in a countdown, with only 25 days to shop. We have our lists and are relieved with each item we check off, Christmas cards, gifts, wrapping, decorating, dinners and parties, dashing through the snow. Stay focused: the real countdown to Christmas began when Christ was born in Bethlehem. The Baby born in a manger grew up, became the God-man who prepared to give us the greatest gift ever given – the gift of Salvation, forgiveness of sin, the promise of eternal life in the loving presence of God. It cost him everything and is ours for free. All we have to do is receive it.